Year 7 students in the Mandarin Excellence Programme attend a study day at the University College London. Photo provided to China Daily

Mandarin classes in secondary schools in England over the past five years have proved so popular that the numbers of students studying the language are on course to have doubled by the 2022-23 academic year.

The classes have been offered under the Mandarin Excellence Programme, or MEP, which is co-run by the University College London Institute of Education Confucius Institute for Schools, or IOE CI, the Department for Education and the British Council.

The stated aim of the program is “the sustainable development of the teaching and learning of Mandarin Chinese and the study of China across other areas of the curriculum”.

“IOE CI’s vision is that every child in England who wishes to is able to learn Chinese and that every school has access to high quality Chinese teaching.”

Since the first students joined the course in September 2016, over 5,000 of them at more than 70 state schools have been enrolled for the program, which includes residential study in England and a trip to China. Before the UK’s outbreak of the coronavirus in the spring of 2020, more than 1,100 children had visited the country.

“We believe in the power of learning and language, for the benefits and opportunities it creates for individuals, and for the importance foreign languages play in facilitating international cultural, education and economic collaboration, and this is particularly true of Mandarin Chinese,” said Shannon West, MEP manager for the British Council.

Katherine Carruthers, who is program director at the UCL IOE, said it was no surprise that the chance to learn Mandarin had been so well received and had grown from the initial 13 schools taking part.

The MEP was set up to respond to the growing importance of China in the economic and cultural fields, and of Chinese as a global language, with a view to growing the number of schools that offer it in their mainstream school curriculum, she said.

“There were some schools that were already doing this but (what) the MEP has enabled us to do is grow and extend it to any state schools in England with a (schools inspectorate) Ofsted rating of good or outstanding.”

‘Seriously ambitious’

She called the program’s goals and eight-hour weekly workload-four hours with teachers, four hours of self-study-“seriously ambitious” and “intensive”, but said it was proving to be a great success, a statement backed up by figures supplied by data company Research Stories, which had evaluated the program.

“The program speaks to a desire to widen (pupils’) horizons and raise expectations,” said Research Stories director Kieran Culligan. “It’s not simply an opportunity to learn a language which is important for the future, but to build confidence and build expectations.”

Although the main practical challenge seemed to be finding room in the timetable for classes, research indicated that the dedication shown by so many people involved in the course was helping find ways around this.

“The dropout rate is only about 5 percent per year, and if you reflect on the intensity of the program and the fact it’s a challenging subject, that’s a very positive figure,” said Culligan. “Despite the challenges, only one school out of 76 has dropped out, which is testimony to how much staff and pupils engage with it.”

The pandemic has temporarily put a halt to the trip to China, managed by the British Council’s China team and the Center for Language Education and Cooperation in China, but those who had managed to visit said it was a huge part of the course’s attraction, and its success.

“In years where it has run, the study trip to China has been extremely important and powerful… the feedback is that the trip is a very strong motivator for children, some of whom, their heads have told us, have hardly ever left their hometown, so the opportunity to go to China is transformational for them,” Culligan added.